a real conversation — jesus and the ‘woman at the well’

In many ways this seems like a simple story. It’s a familiar story, and it all feels so straightforward:

Jesus is travelling with is disciples.

He stops at a well to drink and meets a woman.

They have a conversation about living water.

Eventually she comes to believe he’s the messiah.

Straightforward. Most of us have heard it before. We know the shape of this story.

But something we might miss – or something that we might neglect – is the fact that everywhere in this story there are moments of tension. We can say there is a kind of heaviness that appears in the narrative here and there. I’d like to start out this morning by simply naming a few of tension, or places of heaviness in the story.

In the first place we need to say something about the unnamed woman Jesus encounters. In the narrative we see that she comes alone to the well in the middle of the day. But this is unusual. The middle of the day, of course, is the hottest time of the day. In that historical and geographic context, water was usually drawn toward evening when the sun wasn’t so strong. So why is she going to the well in the middle of the day – and why alone? Drawing water is usually a communal task. The well is a place of conversation and gossip and laughter and shared work. But she’s alone – in the middle of the day. Many have suggested this reflects the fact that she is, somehow, for some reason, isolated within her community. It suggests that she is something of an outsider to her own people? There is a kind of personal and social heaviness indicated here – she experiences the reality of marginalization.

There is a second moment of heaviness in the story. While Jesus and the Samaritan woman speak, the disciples are off getting something to eat in the city. The disciples arrive at the well only when the conversation between Jesus and the woman is wrapping up. We read in the text: “Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’” Essentially, the disciples are embarrassed for Jesus. The disciples are embarrassed that Jesus has no shame in speaking with a woman. To do so is completely against cultural norms and expectations. It’s almost as if they look away in shame: “We’ll just ignore this until she’s gone.” So this is another moment of tension in the story – the discomfort and shame of the disciples at this conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well.

A third moment of tension in the story. After the woman has gone back to the city, and after she tells other people about this Jesus. And after the townspeople themselves encounter Jesus and believe in him – after everything is said and done, Jesus has something to say to his disciples. And what he says has a tone of rebuke to it. Jesus says to them: “Look, see what is happening, look around you.” He repeats the word “look” or “see” three times in a row. Jesus wants his disciples to understand what they have missed. He wants them to see that there are women and men out there who are longing to discover him, and who are longing to be drawn into worship of God. The disciples have a narrow, restricted point of view, and Jesus rebukes them. It is a moment of tension in the narrative.

There is a fourth and final tension we can mention. And this is one that overshadows the whole scene. At the beginning of this story we read: “Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.” Those last words could be read innocently enough. “Well, you know, he had to go through Samaria.” But in fact these words can’t be read innocently because we know there was deep hostility between the Jews and Samaritans. There is an ethnic division between these peoples. These two peoples remain at a distance from one another as often as possible. This ethnic division – this ethnic difference – this ethnic hostility hangs over the whole encounter and narrative. It is a very real tension…

So there are four very real moments of heaviness or tension within the narrati

–      there is the marginalization of the woman in her own community

–      there is the embarrassment of the disciples at Jesus’ behaviour

–      there is the rebuke Jesus offers his disciples for their closed hearts

–      there is ethnic division and hostility that overshadows everything

But why do we draw attention to all of these moments of tension and heaviness? Well it seems important to me to do so, because it helps us to see that our lives really aren’t so different. Pointing to these difficulties surrounding the text helps recognize a kind of parallel between the narrative and our own experiences.  We also live our lives surrounded by social tensions and by all kinds of relational heaviness. In a way, that’s just what it means to be human.

In terms of the ethnic tension – the tension between Samaritan and Jew – we don’t have to look any further Bill 60 here in Quebec. It’s a proposed law that feeds on and reinforces insecurities about those who are different – a bill that divides people from one another. And of course we can’t simply point our finger at the PQ, though we may love to do so. If we were honest, each of us could identify prejudices we hold, or personal tensions we feel, with certain groups of peoples. And all of us are to some extent caught up in systems that privilege some of us and not others.

In terms of the personal isolation of the woman Jesus encounters – in terms of her seeming alienation from her community – we may have experienced such isolation ourselves. Or we may know others who experience such isolation and marginalization. It is not an unusual experience within human community.

In terms of the disciples and their discomfort with Jesus talking with a woman – I suspect this also isn’t too far from our experience. There have been massive strides taken in western culture in terms of women’s rights and freedoms, yet there are still ways that women don’t have the same opportunities and freedoms that men have. And beyond the question of gender, we all know that within our circles of friends there are some people with whom it’s ok to speak and some people who are generally not approved of. In all of our circles, there are those it’s ok to work with or spend time with – and there are those you might not want to work with or sit down to a meal with. Colleagues or friends or family would be embarrassed if you did.

These kinds of tensions – the relational and social heaviness that is present across this particular story in John’s gospel – is a reality in our own lives.

And here’s what I think is so interesting in all of this.

With all of these tensions swirling around the story. With all of this social and personal and relational heaviness that is palpably present. There in the middle of it all, are a man and a woman having an open, an honest, and a meaningful conversation. Two people meet, and they are free with each other, and interested in each other, and they are open with one another in conversation, about things that matter.

The Samaritan woman is bold in speaking with Jesus. When Jesus asks for a drink of water, she responds by saying to him: “How is that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Of course Jesus is equally bold in his reply – suggesting his capacity to provide living water. But staying with the woman, she is struck that Jesus has just broken such a fundamental social norm by speaking with her – she is a woman, and even more she is a Samaritan. And she wants to know how and why Jesus is acting in a way that is so contrary to expectations – she simply asks him.

Not only is the Samaritan woman bold to ask why Jesus is going against social norms – she is also bold to question the claims he makes about himself – that he can provide living water. She says to him: “Sir, you don’t even have a bucket. The well is deep. Where are you going to get this special water you are talking about? What, do you think you are greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well?” Jesus has made a claim about himself – that he is unique and has some gift to offer. And his conversation partner wants to know why he thinks this. She’s willing to hear more, but she wants an explanation for the dramatic claim he has made for himself.

The Samaritan woman is bold and engaged in a third instance. We can’t trace the whole story, but at the point she discovers and accepts that Jesus is somehow unique – that he is at least a prophet – at that moment she asks him a pointed question: “We Samaritans worship on this mountain, and you Jews worship on that mountain. Who’s right?” It is a pressing faith question – where is God to be worshipped – who is God. She wants to know Jesus’ opinion on this difficult question. He answers her question by suggesting that a day is coming when God’s people will not worship on either of these mountains – rather, they will worship in Spirit and in truth. In John’s gospel, it is precisely through Jesus that such worship – in Spirit and in truth – will be offered to God. But the point first of all is simply her honest inquisitiveness in conversation.

Obviously this narrative is full to overflowing with details – we’ve already said a lot – and there’s so much more in the story. In fact, this conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in John’s gospel. There are so many different ways we could take our exploration this morning.

But I simply want to point to the fact that there is something special about this conversation. We’ve seen that there are all these personal tensions swirling around the narrative. There are these realities of social heaviness that hang around the conversation at the well. But in spite all of those tensions – and in the midst of all that heaviness – there is the possibility of a real, an open, and an honest conversation. In the middle of all of these relational and social challenges there is the possibility of a genuine encounter between two people.

Form his side, Jesus refuses to ignore or dismiss this person:

He will not ignore her on account of that fact that she is a woman.

He will not dismiss her on account of the fact that she is a Samaritan.

He will not marginalize her for whatever reason her community has done so.

And from her side the Samaritan woman will claim her voice and speak honestly in conversation.

She will not accept Jesus’ claims without testing them.

She will not accept Jesus’ words without reflecting on what she understands to be true.

In conversation she will remain open to discovering something new – and sharing it with others if it makes sense to her.

There are two very simple possibilities we take from this story. The first is the possibility that we might imagine and participate in such meaningful conversations with those around us. Of course there is so much social and cultural baggage that prevents us from truly meeting others – there are so many insecurities that we carry in our own selves – there is so much social pressure to conform and to simply accept certain orthodoxies. So much militates against our actually meeting others and opening ourselves to what they say and who they are. This story, very simply, is an invitation to love others enough to take them seriously in conversation – to love others enough to ask questions and seek deeper understanding – to love others enough that we may speak confidently about who we are, about what we believe, and about what we understand about life and world. It may seem like such a simple possibility – yet it is one that is, in so many respects, lost on our culture.

The final, simple point for us goes beyond the conversations we might have with other women and men in relationship. The final and simple point is that we are invited into conversation with Jesus. John’s gospel does not give us this story as an example of how a dead man named Jesus used to meet with others and speak with them. The gospel of John offers us this story so that we will wrestle with the claims of Jesus just as the Samaritan woman wrestled with the claims of Jesus – that we will engage with Jesus just as the townspeople engaged with Jesus. To seek him and speak with him and read about him and remain open to the possibility that he offers us exactly what he claims to offer – living water – refreshment for our lives – joy for the journey – hope for the future – life in all its fullness. It’s a conversation worth having – and this story invites us to have that conversation, with Jesus.


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